J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Youngest Americans to Be Executed

The youngest person executed in U.S. history was Hannah Ocuish (1774-1786) of Norwich, Connecticut. A poor household servant, she had confessed to killing a six-year-old girl named Eunice Bolles.

The Executed Today blog shares the details, most of them taken from the pamphlet that contained the Rev. Henry Channing’s execution-day sermon. The only other mentions of the case that Google has found in nineteenth-century books are two local histories and a genealogy of the Bolles family. Apparently the fact that Hannah was only twelve years old didn’t worry American authors in that century.

In this article, Prof. Karen Halttunnen describes how the account published with Channing’s sermon was structured like a mystery, even though the writer clearly knew where the story would lead. This was apparently one of the first American examples of the whodunit approach to reporting crime.

In 1828, New Jersey hanged a thirteen-year-old named James Guild. Like Hannah Ocuish, he had confessed to killing someone who lived near the house where he worked. The legal process in James’s case took longer, several months before conviction and several more for review. The state judges examining the sentence cited the case of William York, described yesterday. But while the British government actually pardoned York in his late teens, New Jersey proceeded to hang James a year after the crime.

The American executed for an act committed at the youngest age was James Arcene (1862-1885). Reportedly he was only ten years old when he participated in a robbery and murder, but escaped and remained at large through his adolescence. He was recaptured and hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The youngest American executed in the twentieth century was George Stinney (1929-1944). At fourteen years old, he was accused of rape and murder in South Carolina. He got a perfunctory trial and died in an electric chair that was too large for him. It appears that George was the victim of, as Justice Clarence Thomas said in very different circumstances, “a high-tech lynching.”

Some sources say that in 1927 Florida electrocuted Fortune Ferguson at age thirteen, but others say he was sixteen or seventeen at the time of conviction.

Hannah Ocuish was of Pequot and African ancestry. James Arcene was Cherokee. James Guild, George Stinney, and Fortune Ferguson were all black. In no century has American society executed a white child as young as they were.


Josiah Coffey said...

I find it somewhat ironic that the person executed in 1786 was not only a girl, the only girl who fits into the 'youngest persons executed' list, but that it also happened in the northern most State from the same list.

J. L. Bell said...

I think these data points, few as they are, reflect a gradual movement in American justice away from harsh punishments for juveniles.

In the late 1700s, society was willing to impose death on a 12-year-old girl—but never again was a girl, or any child that young, executed. (Was Connecticut’s Puritan heritage part of why it hanged Hannah Ocuish, or would other states have done the same?)

In the early 1800s, American society was willing to execute a 13-year-old, and in the mid-1900s a 14-year-old.

In the last few years the Supreme Court has set a precedent that no one who committed a crime under the age of 18 can be executed, and now that no one of that age can be sentenced to life in prison.

Anonymous said...

One minor correction (J.L. Bell): SCOTUS ruled out only MANDATORY LWOP sentences.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the correction on mandatory life without parole. The implication being that a judge and jury can impose life without parole on juveniles if they think about it first?